Schools FAQ: How Long Will The K-12 School Shutdown Last?

covid what to know about schools 2
Marc Monaghan, Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
covid what to know about schools 2
Marc Monaghan, Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

Schools FAQ: How Long Will The K-12 School Shutdown Last?

WBEZ is answering your questions about the coronavirus in Illinois. Have a question? Ask us here.

All public and private schools in Illinois are closed for in-person classes for the rest of the academic year. Colleges and universities are also shut down. We’re monitoring this developing story for news that applies to families with children in school — in the greater Chicago area, primarily — so check back for updates.

Parents (and students), here are answers to your pressing questions, researched and reported by WBEZ’s education team:

How long will the K-12 school shutdown last?

Through at least the rest of the academic year and summer, and possibly into the fall.

This applies to all private and public schools.

Gov. JB Pritzker on April 17 canceled in-person classes for the rest of the school year. It marked the third time Pritzker had extended the school closure order since school buildings closed on March 17. Pritzker’s first order on March 13 darkened classrooms through March. On March 31, Pritzker extended the order until the end of April. In May, the State Board of Education also said all school districts should plan to hold summer school remotely.

In the days since schools were shuttered for the year, discussions have ramped up about whether and how schools can open in the fall.

The week of May 4, both the governor and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot laid out plans for a phased re-opening of the state and city. Under Pritzker’s plan, schools cannot open phase four. In mid-May, Chicago, the Chicago area and the state were still in phase four.

At that time, Lightfoot said her goal is to reopen schools in the fall though she stressed the final decision would be determined by science and public health. Both Lightoot and the state schools superintendent have floated several scenarios for the fall if traditional in-person classes aren’t possible, including staggered schedules for students, fewer students per classroom and a mix of remote and in-person classes.

What are “remote learning days?”

This is a term coined by the state for at-home schooling during the coronovirus shutdown.

Remote learning days, which officially began on March 31, count as instructional days and don’t need to be made up. School districts are required to have firm plans for schooling from home for every remote learning day. Districts can use up to five remote days for planning.

The state is offering school districts considerable flexibility in executing remote learning days. They can be online only or paper and pen only, depending on the needs and technical capabilities of individual communities.

The state considered the first two weeks of the statewide school shutdown, from March 17 to March 30, to be “Act of God” days. These days also do not have to be made up at the end of the year.

Can school work assigned during the shutdown count toward student grades?

Yes, with an important caveat. On March 27, the Illinois State Board of Education urged school districts to adopt grading models of “pass” or “incomplete.” This builds on previous state guidance that student assignments during the closure should only count if they improve a student’s grade.

However, the state’s remote learning recommendations released on March 27 also said school districts could “use a traditional grading structure (A-F) for students who would benefit from grades other than pass/incomplete” — with some restrictions. The state says a student’s grade should only be improved or maintained (and not decreased) and no Fs should be given out.

One key rationale for not having school work count is that many schools weren’t ready for e-learning. The biggest challenges are student access to broadband and digital devices. Also, many students and families are under stress during the pandemic and accommodations required by law for students with special needs aren’t possible while school is closed.

The state said schools could implement e-learning plans that rely on technology, or remote learning plans that rely on paper and pencil. It urged districts to adopt what works for its students.

In Chicago, the school district on April 30 released a plan for grading for the last academic quarter that was met with some criticism. It was designed to motivate students as well as ensure teachers are assigning work and holding students accountable.

Under the policy, if a student performs worse during the shutdown, they can’t get a letter grade for the fourth quarter. They can only get a “pass.” Also, students can only raise their grades if they engage in online learning. If they complete paper assignments received from their school, they will get a pass, not a letter grade.

Critics argue many students and families are stressed, are having trouble accessing online lessons and can’t worry about grades.

How are colleges grading students for classes conducted online?

Some moved to pass/fail grading; others are giving students the option to switch to pass/fail.

Northwestern University announced a school-wide decision to make all classes pass/fail to create flexibility and equity among students. However, some students objected and asked the school to make that choice optional for students. Other schools — including the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and Loyola University Chicago — are letting students decide if they want to make some or all classes pass/fail.

Some students are resisting pass/fail because they worry it could limit opportunities down the road. “Some internships or jobs or graduate programs won’t allow you to do pass/fail because they need to see how you did in the course and your GPA,” said Loyola sophomore Emily Slimko.

Switching a class to pass/fail could also negatively impact a community college student who wants to transfer to a four-year university. Often, schools won’t accept pass/fail credits from transfer students. Leaders at the City Colleges of Chicago said they took these issues into consideration and decided to stick with regular grades. But they will let students retake classes this spring for free throughout the next year, even if the student withdraws from the class. Dozens of two- and four-year schools in Illinois participate in a statewide transfer agreement to make it easier for students to have their courses transfer. State leaders on April 6 said they plan to release guidance for schools on this issue soon.

A child studies with his mother in front of a computer
Remote learning days will count as instructional days and won’t need to be made up at the end of the year. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

Are statewide standardized tests canceled in Illinois?

Yes. Under an executive order signed by Gov. JB Pritzker on March 27, all spring standardized tests administered by the state are canceled.

This includes the SAT for high school juniors and exams for elementary students in math, English and science. The Constitution exam also is canceled.

The free SAT that’s usually provided by the state in April is the only chance many students get to take a college entrance exam. On April 15, Illinois officials said the state will offer the free test for current high school juniors in the fall, before college applications are due.

Also on April 15, the College Board, which administers the SAT, says it wouldn’t offer any tests until August. Starting then, it plans to offer the exam every month through December. If schools do not reopen in the fall, the test will be given digitally.

Annual standardized tests in Illinois schools are required under federal law but the State Board of Education applied for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.

On March 19, Chicago Public Schools canceled all district-administered spring standardized tests.

Will school districts be required to add days to make up for time lost during the closure?

No. The mandated school closure days from March 17 to March 30 count as “Act of God” days. The state says these days count toward the 176 annual required student attendance days and do not have to be made up at the end of the year.

Illinois on March 31 moved into so-called “remote learning days.” These days also count as instructional days and school districts are supposed to have firm plans for schooling from home.

The state says schools can implement e-learning or remote learning plans that provide “students with instruction and access to educators through whatever means possible.” This is a nod to the reality that many districts and families do not have adequate access to technology.

Finally, under an order issued by Gov. JB Pritzker on March 27, the state opened the door for school districts to extend into the summer. “Nothing in this executive order,” it reads, “shall prohibit school employees from receiving compensation, on the basis of their regular contracts, for additional time worked as a result of an extension of the school term.”

A child does homework with a calculator
The state says a student’s grade should only be improved or maintained during the shutdown. Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press

Are Advanced Placement exams still happening?

Yes, but not at school. The College Board, which administers the May AP exams, says traditional face-to-face exam administrations will not take place. Students will take a 45-minute free-response exam online at home.

AP exams are given to high school students in a range of subjects, from chemistry and world history to drawing.

For each AP subject, there will be two different testing dates. The full schedule for each exam, question types and additional details is available on the College Board website.

The College Board says students will be able to take exams on a range of devices — computer, tablet or smartphone. Taking a photo of handwritten work will also be an option. If a student needs mobile tools or connectivity they can reach out to the College Board for help.

The SAT college entrance exam, which is also administered by the College Board, won’t be offered until the end of the summer. Testing will resume in August and given every month until December. State officials in Illinois say they will offer the SAT for free to current high school juniors in the fall before college applications are due.

Are colleges and universities reimbursing students?

Yes, many are reimbursing for living expenses. In March, thousands of college students across Chicago were told to move out of university residence halls as colleges tried to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. Many universities across Illinois have told students they are prorating their room and board and meal plans for this semester, including the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago. Both schools were among those that required students to leave residential housing if they had a safe place to go.

The Chicago Business Journalestimates universities in the Chicago area could refund students more than $170 million for housing, meal plans and other services. Some local students, including those at DePaul Univer sity, have petitioned to have schools reduce tuition for the semester. They argue “the educational services offered are not equal to services rendered,” according to a petition on Change.org. The University of Illinois system estimates it will cost $35 million to reimburse students for housing and dining costs at its campuses in Chicago, Springfield and Urbana-Champaign.

A student walks past a University of Illinois sign
The University of Illinois system estimates it will cost $35 million to reimburse students for housing and dining costs at its campuses in Chicago, Springfield and Urbana-Champaign.

Can my children invite friends over?

This is strongly discouraged while Illinois is under its stay-at-home order.

The head of the Illinois Department of Public Health on March 18 also urged children to avoid in-person play dates and hangouts.

“If you’re a kid … don’t undermine the school closures by now creating play dates with a bunch of your friends that you would have been at school [with],” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. “That just negates the benefit of the school closure. If you’re a tween, the same thing. Don’t call everyone over and socialize. We’ve got to limit our exposure at all levels, at every age.”

In an essay titled “This is Not A Snow Day,” Dr. Asaf Bitton urged an end to all play dates. Bitton is a primary care physician and public health researcher affiliated with Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

“This sounds extreme because it is,” Bitton wrote in the widely shared essay posted on Medium. “Even if you choose only one friend to have over, you are creating new links and possibilities for the type of transmission that all of our school/work/public event closures are trying to prevent.”

If you’re outside with a friend, Bitton said to try to maintain at least six feet between you and that person.

Can students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch at school still get free meals?

Yes. Chicago Public Schools, for example, is distributing food bags from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily at schools.

On April 13, CPS reduced the number of buildings where families can go for meals to eliminate sites where demand has been low. CPS says 52% of schools are offering food, with the majority on the city’s South and West sides. It also says it continues to offer free meal delivery. A list of meal sites is available at cps.edu/mealsites or by calling 773-553-KIDS.

All Illinois school districts are supposed to be distributing two meals a day for any child who qualifies for free or reduced price lunch.

A sign pointing to free meal pick up at Frederic Chopin Elementary School
A sign points to free meal pick up at Frederic Chopin Elementary School. Carrie Shepherd / WBEZ

Can I still send my child to the Chicago Park District for child care?

No. The Chicago Park District had been offering programming for children at 18 sites, but as of March 21 all Park District facilities are closed. This is due to Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home directive effective though April 30.

Follow WBEZ’s education team on Twitter @WBEZeducation or @soosieon, @sskedreporter, @AdrianaCardMag, @McGeeReports and @KateGrossman1.